CowboySpirit.com – Those who have seen the classic western movie True Grit likely remember the scene in which Rooster Cogburn insults La Boeuf by saying, “You do it and it’ll be the worst mistake you ever made, you Texas brush popper!” It sounds like an effective insult and was in fact occasionally used as one in the Old West, but in reality brush poppers were only cowboys working in a different kind of terrain, the thick brush that at the time characterized much of the available ranch land in the American Southwest.
The Origins of the Brush Popper
Brush poppers were known by various terms across the Old West, including brush busters and brush hands. One common term for these cowboys, brush whacker, has survived in current usage though modified as ‘bush whacker’ in most cases. The brush popper was one who worked with cattle in brush country, where brush could be comprised of anything growing together, from cactuses to vines and catclaws, all of which had the potential to inflict pain and even serious injury on a man and his horse.
Texas was primarily known for being brush country, though there were several other areas where terms like brush popper were an accurate description of the type of work cowboys could expect. These included parts of southern California, New Mexico, and Arizona.
An Old West Respect for the Work
In many ways, herding in the brush presented larger and more frequent risks than herding in open terrain like grassland. The brush obscured not only obstacles that could injure a horse and rider but often the cattle themselves. However, cutting or moving brush was not usually feasible, which meant that cowboys took the risk of riding straight through brush obstacles more often than not. This earned brush poppers respect among their Old West counterparts.
Although the life style has changed dramatically and few of those who still work in the cattle industry even identify themselves as cowboys, it is still possible to find working ranches in brush country in Texas and beyond, where many of the same risks await. Knowing that it takes a certain grit to be successful there continues to generate respect for the men and women who still work hard in the brush.